The Journal Outside the Bubble

The Wall Street Journal has an excellent page-one story this morning exposing Merrill Lynch’s top earners of 2008. It’s another in a string of hits by reporter Susanne Craig, who’s been dominating the Bank of America/Merrill story.

This piece looks at “Merrill’s $10 Million Men,” who somehow made Gilded Age II salaries last year as their firm lost $28 billion, the junk it created sunk the world economy, and it latched on to the government teat. I guess it’s hard to turn the thundering herd of decamillionaires around once they get going: eleven of them made at least $10 million each (for a total of $209 million) in 2008 and 149 made more than $3 million.

The Journal’s tone is good, too:

As bad as 2008 was for Merrill Lynch & Co., it was very good for Andrea Orcel, the firm’s top investment banker. Although Merrill’s net loss ballooned to $27.6 billion last year, Mr. Orcel, 45 years old, was paid $33.8 million in cash and stock, just shy of his pay in 2007.

While Merrill staggered, 11 top executives were paid more than $10 million in cash and stock last year, say people familiar with the situation…

But information reviewed by the Journal shows that some traders and investment bankers faced only small pay cuts last year, even though the Merrill units they ran posted significant losses.

Of course, there’s all kinds of shadiness (even for Wall Street!) surrounding pay there, and Merrill and its ex-CEO John “The Commode” Thain are under investigation by the state of New York for the $3.6 billion in bonuses it paid out last year.

The Journal notes up high that “much” of the pay it’s writing about here came in the form of stock, which has gone down a lot since, something defenders surely cited. No matter. What counts here is the dollar figure of the total package when it was granted. Stock goes up; stock goes down. Plus, handing it out dilutes other shareholders’ holdings.

Defenders will also point out that the units some of these guys ran weren’t part of the company’s downfall and made lots of money last year. Also bogus. While that needs to be taken into consideration relative to the pay of executives who lost money, the cash and earnings of the whole company is one big pie, not a bunch of slices. Everybody starves when it ends up in taxpayer’s faces.

But Merrill clearly wanted one last go at the trough, or maybe it doesn’t understand that it’s the last go. It was clearly in the Wall Street bubble. Here’s some pay for performance:

Mr. Orcel, the investment banker who was paid $33.8 million, has worked on some of the world’s biggest investment-banking deals in recent years. He also was involved in a big deal that now looks to be unsuccessful, advising Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC and other acquirers of ABN Amro Holding NV. The Dutch bank was acquired for $101 billion in 2007.

Mr. Orcel got a one-time bonus valued at $12 million for his role in the deal. Former RBS Chairman Sir Tom McKillop recently called the acquisition “a bad mistake.” Losses related to the ABN Amro deal are one reason the U.K. government is increasing its ownership stake in RBS to 95%.

Great job, Andrea!

How about this one:

Thomas Montag, the head of global sales and trading at Merrill, made $39.4 million in 2008, even though his first day on the job was in August. Merrill has previously reported Mr. Montag’s compensation. Mr. Montag also received stock valued at about $50 million to replace what he gave up by leaving Goldman Sachs Group Inc., his former employer, according to people familiar with the matter. In 2008, the unit run by Mr. Montag had negative net revenue of $28.1 billion. Mr. Montag didn’t respond to requests for comment.

This is the kind of stuff we need from the Journal, the kind it’s all too often been lacking in the last year. More, please!

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.